Malaysia orders search-and-rescue for migrants

2015-05-21 22:10
Rohingya migrants sit on the floor at the authority's district office of Rattaphum, Songkla province, southern Thailand, as they were found abandoned in Khao Kaew mountain near the Thai-Malaysia border. (Sumeth Panpetch, AP)

Rohingya migrants sit on the floor at the authority's district office of Rattaphum, Songkla province, southern Thailand, as they were found abandoned in Khao Kaew mountain near the Thai-Malaysia border. (Sumeth Panpetch, AP)

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Yangon - Four Malaysian navy ships began searching the seas for stranded boat people on Thursday in the first official rescue operation since desperate migrants started washing onto Southeast Asia's shores, and a formerly reluctant Myanmar agreed to attend a regional meeting aimed at easing the crisis.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis are believed to be trapped on boats with little food or water - some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries - and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.

The announcement on Thursday by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was the latest in a series of breakthroughs, including an offer by his country and Indonesia to provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children until a more permanent solution is found.

He said he had ordered his navy and coast guard to conduct search-and-rescue efforts for other boats.

"We have to prevent loss of life," he tweeted.

Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said four vessels had been deployed, and three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.

Myanmar, which earlier hinted it would skip a regional meeting in Thailand next week bringing together representatives of more than a dozen nations, changed course on Thursday, saying it would attend.

Around half the migrants on the boats are Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing persecution and violence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

"We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," said Zaw Htay, director of the president's office.

The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Myanmar was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya, a term that is not recognised by his government.

Myanmar officials refer to members of the religious minority as "Bengalis", implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.

The UN says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognises them as citizens.

Read more on:    malaysia  |  search and rescue

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